BACKGROUND: On July 6, shortly before the second round of the mayoral elections in Tbilisi’s and seven other self-governed cities, and runoffs in races for gamgebeli (municipal executive) in 13 municipalities, a senior cleric of the GOC, Bishop Jakob, weighed into the election campaign with a politically-charged sermon in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. He called on voters to “reject” the Georgian major opposition party and former government, the United National Movement (UNM) whose representatives “are not repenting for what they have done to the country.” He accused the UNM of “[stripping] the nation of its dignity” and expressed his wish for the UNM to “stand aside for a while […] and look at their mistakes.”
Four NGOs, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, Georgian Young Lawyers Association, Transparency International Georgia and Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center called on the Central Election Commission to study and react to this case. They accused Bishop Jakob of making statements amounting to election campaigning, which would constitute a violation of the law. The Georgian election code bans election campaigning by religious organizations and a violation of the rules carries a fine amounting to GEL 2,000 (US$ 1,130).
The Central Election Commission launched administrative proceedings against Bishop Jakob, who is one of three deputy heads of the GOC. On August 14, however, the Central Election Commission dismissed the human rights groups’ accusations and issued a statement in which it accepted Bishop Jakob’s explanation that he made his remarks in the capacity of an individual clergyman, and not as a representative of the GOC as a whole. Yet, the constitutional agreement between the Georgian state and the GOC contradicts this line of argumentation; it states that the Patriarch’s deputies represent the GOC without requiring any additional authorization.
Another example that demonstrates the GOC’s active political involvement is the adoption of the controversial bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity earlier this year. The GOC tried to intervene in the legislative process and wanted to block the bill, claiming that it would legalize homosexuality, which it considered a “deadly sin.” While the bill was a requirement for Georgia to be granted a short-term visa-free regime by the EU, the GOC massively influenced the wording and control mechanisms of the new law, which was eventually passed unanimously by the parliament with 115 votes against 0.
Accordingly, human rights organizations lament that the bill lacks efficient implementation mechanisms and financial penalties for those responsible of discrimination, making the bill largely ineffective. Baia Pataraia of Union Sapari, an NGO helping victims of domestic violence, said during the parliamentary committee hearing on April 16 that without efficient enforcement mechanisms, the bill leaves the impression that the government wants it in order to demonstrate that it has met one of its requirements under the visa liberalization action plan with the EU, and not for genuinely addressing the problem.
IMPLICATIONS: Over the past two decades, the GOC has developed into a highly politicized institution. Supporters of radical positions, who dominate the hierarchy within the GOC, maintain a huge influence on the political sphere and elite in Georgia. Their critical stance towards Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration is evident in the GOC’s attitude toward the fundamental rights that the EU grants to individuals, for example to religious and sexual minorities.
Radical Orthodox Priest Davit Isakadze said of the anti-discrimination bill, “If this is a requirement from the EU in order to have visa liberalization with Europe, then it is better not to have this visa liberalization at all rather than to make such inclinations like homosexuality a legal norm.” Archpriest Lasurashvili took the same stance in the debate on the anti-discrimination bill: “Who needs such a Europe if this Europe depraves us?” On the other hand, a few dissenting voices also exist within the GOC on the anti-discrimination bill. Ilarion Shengelia, archpriest from Zugdidi, wrote on his Facebook wall on April 30 that he had read the bill and “could not find anything tragic or anti-Christian” in it. “The Church has always been against violence, injustice and discrimination.”
The debate on the anti-discrimination bill reflects a division in the GOC, between traditionalist and reformists; the former show little to no tolerance for other beliefs and religious traditions and massively seek to impose their views and perceptions on Georgian society. Their worldview is characterized by an “us versus them” concept that contains an anti-Western, anti-democratic bias. The reformists, on the other hand, support reforms of the GOC and the ecumenical idea in Georgia and have a more cosmopolitan outlook.
Adding to the internal divide between traditionalists and reformists, the diminishing power of Patriarch Ilia II could become a major concern. When Ilia became Patriarch in 1977, the GOC had only 50 priests. It now has approximately 1,700, many of whom have never received comprehensive religious education. Many Georgians worry about the health of the 81-year-old man, who has helped guide his country during the turbulent times since independence. Succession to the patriarch could pose a significant challenge, because it is hard to find someone of the same caliber. Despite some political missteps, the Patriarch is a national symbol and is seen by many as a respected source of stability.
His vanishing power over the ultra-conservative clergy is worrisome, especially since Georgians grow increasingly dissatisfied with the political elite. The exceptionally low voter turnout in this year’s municipal elections and the fact that eight run-offs had to take place in Georgia’s major cities could be an indication of the Georgian population’s disappointment with the Georgian Dream government, which promised to create more jobs and bolster the crumbling Georgian economy. Instead, a devastating social situation and a high unemployment rate continue to determine the reality for most Georgians.
As dissatisfaction with politicians grows, the GOC has a key role to play as a stabilizing force. Rather than seeking to polarize or reinforce fears within society of e.g. homosexuality and religious pluralism, the GOC could utilize its authority to calm down tempers and ease concerns that result both from the growing complexity of the political and social reality and the dire economic situation. To do so, the Church needs to overcome its internal divide, ensure the quality of religious teachings, improve the training for priests and take a pragmatic stance toward Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
CONCLUSIONS: The GOC continues to exercise as much influence on the political elite as ever before. Yet those who perceive Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration as a threat dominate the hierarchy of the Church. Their interference in politics is becoming increasingly incompatible with Georgia’s pursued path of Euro-Atlantic integration and its attempts to establish social and political pluralism. With the growing disappointment of the democratically elected Georgian Dream Coalition, the GOC will likely remain the political center in Georgia in the years to come. The GOC could use its authority to play a significant role in establishing a climate of tolerance and to take a constructive stance in facilitating dialogue among conflicting parties. But if Georgia’s most respected institution instead chooses to nourish a climate of extreme nationalism and intolerance, this may harm Georgia’s democratic development and its image of an open and tolerant country.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Carolin Funke is an independent analyst based in Germany. She was an intern with the Central-Asia Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center in 2013.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)